Baker council debates audit needs

The City Council asked two certified public accountants several perfunctory questions about audit procedures Wednesday while debating whether to drop the city’s longtime auditing firm.

Meeting in a session during which votes could not be taken, the council members said they will vote on a firm to conduct the 2012-13 audit at their April 23 meeting.

Council President Charles Vincent said he wants to make the selection in an executive session after the members consider applications submitted by five firms.

Vincent did not say what legal exception to an open meeting he would invoke to call for the selection discussion behind closed doors.

Mary Sue Stages, of Baker, has audited the city’s finances for years, following in the footsteps of her father, John O. Butler, who founded their firm 50 years ago. She attended the meeting Wednesday, along with her husband, Carl.

Last year, the Baker School Board, in a move pushed by then-President Elaine Davis, dropped Stages as the board’s auditor, in favor of the Postlethwaite and Netterville accounting firm, which sent two representatives to Wednesday’s meeting.

Butler, after retiring, sometimes publicly criticized actions by Leroy Davis, the School Board member’s husband, while Leroy Davis was mayor of Baker.

“Why are we here? That’s what I’d like to know,” Councilman and former Mayor Pete Heine asked Wednesday. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

He said Postlethwaite and Netterville is a highly reputable firm, but added he believes the city auditor should be a Baker resident and voter with an office in the city. He added that Stages’ family has long been active in Baker civic causes.

“We’re very grateful for what the Stages family has done for this community, however, there’s no entitlement to taxpayers’ money,” Councilwoman Joyce Burges said.

She said the council’s study of audit firms “is being done because it should be done.”

The council and Leroy Davis objected last year to three lame-duck council members voting in the majority to hire Stages to do the 2011-12 audit, but the outgoing members said their action was legal because the audit covered their last year in office.

Without being specific, Vincent said criticism has been leveled at the city because of “some problems with the accounting efforts over the past several years.”

Burges also said the audits have been delivered late to the state legislative auditor since 2009, but Finance Director Aristead Clayton shouldered the blame for the delays, citing family issues and difficulties in changing to new accounting and utility billing software.

Burges said someone with the Legislative Auditor’s Office told her the late delivery of the audits could “compromise” the city’s ability to get state funds, but she could not say who told her that when pressed by Mayor Harold Rideau.

Rideau said Burges claimed at a March 26 meeting that a state official told her the city lost state capital outlay funds because of accounting and auditing problems. Rideau said Burges could not give him a name during that discussion, either.

The mayor said the city has received $8.08 million in grants channeled through the state since 2008 but has not lost grant money despite what Burges alleges.